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Friday, April 5, 2013

Does Historical Accuracy Really Matter?

File:View on Egeskov Castle from english garden.JPGOn my on-line writing group for those of us who write Regency Romance novels, some of us were bemoaning the fact that so many novels labeled historicals are historically inaccurate. In the 80’s, historicals were pretty much anything goes. A few authors did a great job of blending a great story with historical accuracy, but many best-selling authors didn’t seem to worry about it. Unfortunately, publishers let them get away with it and readers swallowed it. Now don't get me wrong, they crafted wonderful stories with wonderful characters, but they created their own rules which many readers accepted as fact but were, in fact, myth.

A prime example of this is the myth that in Regency or Victorian England, marriage could be quietly annulled if it wasn’t consummated. I don’t know who started that, but it is unarguably false. There was an ancient Scottish tradition that allowed for annulment in certain circumstances if the marriage was not consummated, but for all intents and purposes, marriage in England was permanent--especially in England. Furthermore, in England, annulment was messy and scandalous and never, ever happened quietly. It also socially ruined both the husband and the wife. Even divorce was difficult to obtain until King Henry VII legalized divorce in England, and even then, never became an easy thing to do until late in the 20th century.

Today, more and more publishers are looking for historical accuracy, but still not enough to satisfy many history geeks. The winner of a nationally recognized historical contest began her Regency Romance novel with a grand wedding full of descriptions that are modern inventions which never happened in that era. Why did she win? Probably because it was a lovely fantasy that blended history with modern-day traditions, and she was a good writer. Too bad the judges overlooked the fact that it was historically inaccurate. A few hours spent in research would have won her not only the contest, but the respect of other regency authors and the well-informed readers who know better. However, she probably understood that readers have a certain expectation and wanted to meet that instead of rely upon historical accuracy.

Why do I care about historical accuracy? Several reasons.

First, because it’s true. The fiction comes from the plot and the characters, not the setting.

Second, it helps preserve our heritage. Though I am a true American mutt, I have strong English lineage on both sides of my family--and so does my husband who can trace his ancestry back to William the Conquerer--and holding fast to the facts helps me stay in touch with my roots.

Third, we can learn from the past. The good old days weren’t all that good which helps me appreciate our day. But aspects of the good old days really were wonderful and should be treasured--and remembered.

Fourth, many readers (and writers) are fascinated with that era and want sources to guide them through it so they can explore it without having to turn to a history book. When readers connect with characters, history is lived, rather than simply read about.

Fifth, keeping an accurate backdrop helps shape the characters. Research is more than just learning about the clothing or what kind of carriages they drove; it’s about society and people, how they behaved and what their expectations and frustrations were. It’s a realm long gone and our only doorway back is through painstaking research.

Some say, “Oh, well, it’s the story we want and the fantasy that entertains us.” To that I say, “Well, fine, then label it a fantasy, not a historical.” If you’re going to call a novel Historical, or Historical Fiction, do the research. I know it's a pain. For years ago, characters nagged me to write their stories but I resisted because I didn't want to do the amount of research that would be required. Finally, when they wouldn't leave me alone, I broke down and began researching. It's hard, and frustrating, and very time consuming. But it was worth it. The fruits of my labor became the Rogue Hearts series, beginning with The Stranger She Married and The Guise of a Gentleman. Now, I love the research aspect of writing historicals.

In the midst of the on-line ranting that occured on our writers group, one of the published authors in my group shared with us her philosophy:

As a writer, my job is threefold:

1) do my homework well enough to please my fellow history geeks,

2) make the story compelling enough to hook readers who don't care whether or not it's accurate, and

3) don’t stress over writers/readers who prefer the fairytale.

It resonated within me. I hope it helps you, too.

Image found on Wikimedia common


Julia Ergane said...

When will you publish more in the Rogue Hearts series (I would love to know about the other brothers). I feel your pain, as a person who majored in history it does matter to me that the writer accurately knows about the time he/she is writing about. Right now I am planning two novels (one being a multi-volume series the other, a stand alone). Both will have historical/speculative aspects to them. The actual history will have to be as accurate as we can possibly know, just because I'm anal retentive that way. This does not proscribe imagination, artistry, or creativity at all.

Robert Enders said...

Remember that a novel is fiction that is meant to entertain, rather than educate. But I think historical novels should encourage readers to look up what actually happened in the story's time period. Sometimes authors will disclose in the appendix how they deviated from history.

Elf Ahearn said...

Back in the good 'ol days (far before my time), there was a book series titled, "Little Maid of Provincetown, Old Philadelphia, Ticonderoga," etc. These stories depicted actual historical events in history and were geared to educate children. My sister loved them (frankly, I was too busy reading horse books to bother), but she as a result, she had a much stronger grasp on our past. The series provided a pain-free way to learn about history.
What my sister loves about Regency romances are the historical details -- she savors them. As writers we have the power to open up a world to our readers and give them a pain-free peek into what life might have been like, and that's a worthwhile cause.
Now, having seen the amazing devotion to details fellow Beau Monde members have displayed, I'm not sure I would have had the guts to write the opening sentence to A Rogue in Sheep's Clothing. There are inaccuracies, I know that now, but the effort was worth it.

Isabella Gladd said...

Historical accuracy is very important to me as a reader and as I write my first Regency romance. The connection I feel to the past is palpable when I discover the answer to a question. I can get way too lost in research. As a reader I'll close a book and not open it again if it's too full of historical errors (The Other Boleyn Girl is a prime example of disgust at the lack of accuracy.) The three tips at the end are quite helpful, except I must please myself with the historical facts before I can move on.